- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

Area police say motorists who use a clear spray that obscures license plates to traffic cameras can be charged with defacing their plates, despite manufacturers’ claims that the sprays are legal.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that motorists were applying the spray, called Photoblocker, to license plates to make them hyper-reflective and unreadable when the traffic cameras flash. The canned spray costs $29.99.

Manufacturers of the spray, marketed by online merchant Phantom Plate (www.phantomplate.com), claim their product defies laws that bar motorists from placing hyper-reflective covers over their license plates.

Joe Scott, marketing director for Photoblocker, said he knows of no jurisdictions that ban the spray. Most states have laws against obscuring or distorting license plates, but Photoblocker obscures the license plate only in a photo, Mr. Scott said, making it legal or at least difficult for police to detect with the naked eye.

While Virginia, Maryland and the District don’t have laws against the spray, police say Mr. Scott’s logic is faulty. They say the spray falls under the same provisions that prohibit defacing license plates.

Title 18, Chapter 422.5 of the D.C. municipal regulations states that tags “shall be maintained free from foreign materials and in clearly legible condition.”

In the District, it is illegal to deface a license plate.

“It certainly is,” said D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, “and we will take action. But somebody is always going to come up with something trying to circumvent the law.”

Clear license-plate covers preceded the spray. They deflect light to make plates unreadable from the side and from above, but not from directly behind a car. Some jurisdictions that employ the camera-enforcement technology have banned these products.

Title 13-411 of the Maryland Code states that license plates must be kept “free from foreign materials.” The code specifies plate covers, but police say the law is worded carefully to include other materials, such as the spray.

“Since this spray distorts the image as recorded by the red-light camera, it falls under this in the same way as Maryland residents are prohibited from putting a dark-tint plastic cover over their tag to obscure it in any way,” said Officer Derek Baliles, a Montgomery County Police spokesman.

Virginia law punishes anyone who with “fraudulent intent, alters, falsifies, or forges” a license plate.

“You have to make it so you can read it,” said Fairfax County Police spokeswoman Julie Hersey. She said Virginia has no law against the spray or against plate covers “because the cameras can see through that.”

The District, Maryland and Virginia all have laws permitting the use of red-light cameras, and the Federal Highway Administration says 21 states have red-light or speed-detection cameras in place or are considering installing the devices.

The District has collected $21.6 million in fines since August 1999 from its 39 red-light cameras. An additional $29 million has been collected from speed cameras since their installation in August 2001.

Metropolitan Police Department officials say they don’t believe the spray is effective, but Chief Ramsey said users ultimately wouldn’t benefit even if they do evade a ticket.

“You spray something on your plate so you can’t be observed running a red light or speeding, you have a crash and you die. I guess you’ve really shown us that you’re smarter,” he said. “The real key is just to obey the traffic laws.”

Chief Ramsey said 55 percent of the accidents in the District are speed-related. He said red-light violations have declined 60 percent at intersections where cameras are installed.

“I realize it’s controversial, but it’s saving lives,” he said.

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